Apologetics of the Rich Hold Us Back

The Millionaire Next DoorAt my day job, I’ve been working on a number of articles that were left by writers in various states of unacceptability. Some of them only required what I would loosely call editing. I turned one into a new article. And there were a few that were just hopeless. One was an article I’ve seen so many times before, I don’t understand why the writer thought it was worth revisiting: what rich people do differently from poor people. The implication of these kinds of articles is always the same: if you act like rich people, you’ll become rich yourself!

It’s nonsense. But there’s a reason why it has become something of a genre: the rich and their apologists really want to argue that there is some good reason for people to be wealthy. We supposedly live in a meritocracy, after all. So it just can’t be allowed for people to think that wealth is largely a matter of dumb luck. But of course, it is. Even if you grant the idea of meritocracy, why is it that one person is born smart and another dumb? And you can say the same thing about every other human attribute that a price can be put on.

The article I was dealing with was based on the book, The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy. What it said was that we have the wrong idea about millionaires. The typical millionaire was just your unassuming neighbor who saved money and invested it in the stock market. There was just one major problem with the book: it was wrong. It’s true that there were such millionaires. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb documented completely in Fooled by Randomness, that was due to the fact that the book came out in 1996 — the end of the longest bull market in US history. In other words, the timing was perfect to find such millionaires. What’s more, there was survivor bias.

So I went looking for a couple of articles that would push back against this narrative. I was still hoping that I might be able to save the article. I disagree with a lot of the stuff I work on; I would still publish this article if I could make it good and more or less true. But what I found made me abandon all hope. The first was an article by Matt Bruenig, In Reality, the Wealthy Inherit Ungodly Sums of Money. A lot of people try to make the argument that the rich don’t inherit that much of their wealth. And so they will show that the poor inherit almost all of their wealth whereas the rich only inherit about 15% of theirs. It’s pretty obvious what’s happening: the poor live hand to mouth and have almost no wealth. Looking at the problem that way is disingenuous.

But Bruenig makes a wider point that I’ve been making for years: what the rich give their children in terms of cash really doesn’t matter. That isn’t the major inheritance that they get. Bruenig noted, “They also pass along social and cultural capital that help their kids capture the scarce supply of highly-paid jobs. Indeed, even rich kids who do not receive a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to wind up as high-income adults than poor kids who do receive a college degree.”

Probably an even bigger myth that is pushed about the rich is that they work harder than the poor. Sean McElwee addressed this issue, Do The Rich Really Work More Than the Poor? To the extent that it is true, it is because the the poor can’t find work. There are a lot of details about that in the article. But I think the more important point on this is that the rich have more fulfilling jobs. As McElwee put it, “The rich are working slightly more hours, but the real story is the dramatic increase in the hours by the poor and middle-class that are not corresponding with higher wages. And these hours are not of the same quality; they are more satisfying and less stressful.”

But you could just watch Chris Rock discuss how a “career” is different from a “job”:

What’s interesting is that the writer of this article I was working on is, based upon his other work, really liberal. But he really bought into this nonsense. And I don’t think he’s alone. This is one of those hidden systems of control. We continue on with our broken neo-feudal system, because most people think the rich really do deserve their wealth. But there really is no evidence of that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

18 thoughts on “Apologetics of the Rich Hold Us Back

  1. Mr. Rock, you’re wrong! It is entirely possible to have a “job” in which one feels responsible for everything and never has enough time to solve problems. As the old joke goes, “what’s the difference between a teacher and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four.”

    But comedy is about exaggeration for emphasis. There are points I could argue in the following Rock bit about baseball, and I still mostly love it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFFQkQ6Va3A

    (Incidentally the Twins just signed a Korean slugger, and most online-commenting Twins fans wish he’d still do his epic bat flips. He won’t.)

    This is one terrific post. The linked articles are great. And the last paragraph kills me. I used to know people who thought that way. (They’re not dead, I simply don’t know them anymore.)

    • I think the point he’s making about not having enough time is not about people caring about the work they do; I think it is about enjoying the work that you do. But you right: it’s more complicated than he’s saying. For one thing, people can have a career and be badly paid. But in general, the nicer the work you get to do, they better they pay you. I once decided to get a minimum wage job so that I would have less stress. Boy, way I an idiot! The job was high stress and my managers treated me horribly.

      That was a great video. I had no idea about that. Sounds like the basis for a good article…

      • Now that is true, the spoiled princesses of the levels above me are paid way more for 1/3rd the work.

          • This is commenting on a blog. I haven’t had a blog in over ten years. My last final is today and I don’t get to work as many days as I would like.

            So after I see my aesthetician tomorrow, I have literally nothing to do from 6 PM Wednesday to 10 AM Saturday. That is why I am happy to help research, I am bored.

  2. It is true-about 15 years ago I worked at what was one of the Baby Bells and a co-worker whose dad was a real estate guy helped her buy a few houses for section eight housing. At 19 she was going to be running a business with guaranteed income for years as she paid off the houses and used them as collateral to buy more property. At the same time she also was going to college without having to borrow for it.

    If you are not already in the business, you have a lot more barriers to get where she was just by virtue of her father having the know how to set it up for her. This story is repeated all over the US and you see the children of people like her continuing to move up while the rest of eke out livings on Uber type work.

    • Exactly! This is a critical part of inequality. But given that we can’t even provide equal funding of public schools, it seems hopeless to get to that bit of paradox in the meritocracy.

      • What, equal funding for schools? Who do you think you are, Howard Dean?!

        I just wonder what it will take to fix it or if I should not bother any more.

        • You should bother — and also accept you aren’t going to fix it. You are having conversations which improve things slightly. Trump isn’t full-on fascist because he’s so clever and compelling. There were decades of subdued American fascism which led up to Trump. Trump isn’t Trump. He’s Goldwater, he’s Wallace, he’s Reagan, he’s Limbaugh, he’s Billy Graham and Jerry Farwell. All of whom had supporters selling their memes person-to-person or they would never have been popular.

          You’re selling liberalism, and that’s how FDR got elected or civil rights enforced. Nader did not fail, MLK didn’t fail, Bernie Sanders cannot fail. Moving the needle (what a weird cliche that is, does it come from earthquake researchers?) is vastly important. There may be nothing that is more important.

            • It is difficult. And it’s not your job, by yourself, to keep the flag flying. That’s borderline impossible.

              You do what you can do, and that’s going to differ for every person. There’s a reason we think of MLK or Debs or Mother Jones as heroes. Because they had kinda crazy skills of persistence! Like comic-book superhero figures! What those people did is amazing and admirable, but it’s not normal. One might as well give up singing songs because one can’t carry a tune with the same skill as Mozart.

              Well, I’m no Mozart. But I still enjoy singing.

              If it’s time for you to take a break from activism, there is no shame in this. It might mean you’re not a superhero. Who the fuck is? You do what you can do when you can do it.

              Christ, if you aren’t banking paychecks working for Pure Evil, you’re already doing some good.

          • Not sure about the origins of “moving the needle” but wouldn’t be surprised if it came from live audience 1950’s game/reality/talent shows some of which chose winners based on the reading of an “applause meter”.

        • School funding? I don’t think most people are even aware of it. When I bring it up, people seem to think it is an outrage — unamerican! And I agree. But it’s been this way at least for my lifetime.

          • Depends on the age of the person you are talking to-parents are usually hyper aware of school funding since their kids are going to school. Young single people with no offspring don’t care and the old are usually cranky that they now have to pay for it.

            I agree with John Green about how we should fund it because who wants to live in a country full of stupid people?

            • I haven’t found that people understand it on the macroscale. They know that their schools suck but don’t understand why, or don’t imagine it could be any other way. More wealthy people know — that is why they bankrupt themselves living in areas they can’t afford to get their children in better schools.

              Democracy requires well educated people. The libertarians have it all wrong. Reason number 9782: barbarians at the gate. Reason number 9783: barbarians at your feet because you didn’t fund public education.

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